She is a long time dying, this mother-in-law of mine. We are again in Charleston, South Carolina, gathered with family.
Four days now, maybe five since she took to her bed. The days are blending into a restless, agitating week. The entire family is here, and we watch and we wait. That “bright Golden Shore” awaits but, as somebody in the family said, she’s taking the scenic route.
Her body is turning corpse-like before our eyes in the bedroom, yet not quite enough to call the funeral home, not yet. Her flesh shrivels and her skin turns parchment; the hospice nurse says any time, but yet shakes her head wonderingly.
If she dies today, the funeral will be Friday. If she lives another day, it will be Saturday. If she lives to Thursday, the funeral will not be until Monday. The calculations include cost of keeping our rental car throughout the ordeal.
But out here in the family area there’s food to get, things to clean, inventories to mark, property dispositions to discuss, and the final details of the family trust to sort through. We make grocery runs, and I stop at Barnes & Noble for a title I want. Media vita in morte sumus ― in the midst of life we are in death.
What for my wife and myself was to have been a fast weekend for a final visit on her birthday has plunged us all into a purgatorial endurance test. I do not see how someone can live so long in such a state. She has taken no food, no drink for five days, yet she breathes. The reality survival shows should take note of this. The human body can live longer than three days without water. Of course, if it is just dying with no other exertions, that may affect the equation.
She takes shallow breaths punctuated every thirty seconds or so by a sharp gasp, deep. And then repeats. The gasps are coming with greater frequency; perhaps her ordeal and ours nears an end. A snippet of psalm crosses my mind, “Relent, Lord! How long will it be?”
She has always been an “in charge” woman. Five days ago, after a year and better with pancreatic cancer, she more or less (though certainly more than less) told all of us to leave her the hell and alone and let her die in peace. We were holding her up. She didn’t like feeling she could not keep up her conversational obligations, sitting up with us in the family room. Time, she said, to put it away. I like that, we were holding her up.
After talking with her, the home hospice nurse advised putting her to bed, low lighting in the room, and play the Patsy Cline and Connie Stevens CDs she likes. Oh, and give her morphine so she’ll sleep. We did that and then one by one said our private goodbyes and slipped out. She motioned me to bend low as I kissed her forehead and she whispered something I could not hear. I wish I knew what she said, but with the dying it seems awkward if not plain impolite to ask them to repeat themselves.
We have completed all we can do in preparations; just waiting on the woman in the back bedroom. We have fallen out of our own time and landed smack into hers. This is no longer our time to have and to spend. Her time binds our time, sets a boundary. It is her sacred time and ours only to enter as permitted.
It is God’s sacred time in the Mass, not altogether ours. When we fall into the Mass, we fall into God’s time. We are not bystanders, but participants with the saints gathered now in the Upper Room to hear Christ’s word: His body, his blood, for us. It is God’s time surrounding us, lifting us to the banquet room of Christ. We enter to suspend our time, to join a snippet of eternity.
Aboard this slow boat my mother-in-law sails, we are living on ship’s time. This is a time we will give to God.
Editor’s note: Russell Saltzman’s mother-in-law passed away on Friday.